Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have created a smartwatch sensor that detects signs of opioid cravings. Intended to support long-term recovery for opioid use disorder (OUD), the sensor assists the user in managing drug cravings to help prevent relapse. The research team recently received a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Smart and Connected Health program.

The UMass team, led by assistant professor Tauhidur Rahman with Ph.D. student Bhanu Teja Gullapalli, is working with collaborators from Syracuse University and SUNY Upstate Medical University. The smartwatch project grew out of 2019 research authored by Rahman and Gullapalli. That research investigated the use of cardiac and respiratory signals to detect cravings for cocaine and drug-seeking behavior.

The novel sensor measures psychophysiological signs associated with changes in respiration and the heart’s electrical activity. Machine learning algorithms then use elements from the raw sensor data to train neural networks to identify physiological characteristics and trends that indicate opioid cravings.

The sensor can also detect when opioid drugs have been taken. In September 2021, the UMass team published a paper in Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies. The paper describes a study in which the sensor was used to continuously monitor 36 hospitalized patients who received opioid medication for pain. In that study, the sensor identified opioid administration with 80% accuracy.

Drug cravings are a primary cause of relapse, and OUD relapse increases the risk of a fatal overdose. Managing cravings, therefore, is an essential aspect of opioid recovery. Medication-assisted treatment (MAT), one of the most effective OUD recovery strategies, combines medicine that helps reduce cravings with therapy and behavior modification techniques, such as mindfulness.

When the UMass sensor identifies opioid cravings, it alerts the user and suggests mindfulness-based interventions. A smartwatch with a specialized sensor that offers personalized interventions could become an invaluable asset in the treatment of OUD.